North Korea reopens hot spring resort, but only the rich and connected benefit

Admission is pricey and must be paid in foreign currency, making it a ‘pipe dream’ for most.
Reported by Son Hyemin and Park Jaewoo for RFA Korean
North Korea reopens hot spring resort, but only the rich and connected benefit This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Jan. 14, 2020 shows a view of the newly opened Yangdok Hot Springs Resort, in Yangdok in South Pyongan province.

Authorities in North Korea have reopened a lavish hot spring resort to the public that was shuttered for more than three years due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to residents of the secretive hermit kingdom.

The resort, located about a two-hour drive east of the capital Pyongyang in South Pyongan’s Yangdok county, boasts recreational facilities that include indoor and outdoor soaking pools as well as horseback riding parks, on a nearly 500-acre site.

“Yangdok Hot Springs Resort has been open since July 15 and business has resumed,” said a source in South Pyongan who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA Korean on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

The source said that the resort was closed amid a national emergency quarantine just two months after it opened in January 2020 as part of a tourism promotion project ordered by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to earn foreign currency for the regime.

Its reopening 40 months later is part of a number of measures aimed at easing COVID-19 quarantine controls that began in early July, including the lifting of restrictions on domestic travel and an end to the mandatory use of facemasks, the source said.

While foreign tourists are not yet permitted to visit the resort due to ongoing pandemic restrictions, she said, “anyone in North Korea can go to Yangdok Hot Springs.”

Anyone with close ties to the regime and plenty of foreign currency to spend, that is.

People are seen at the outdoor baths in Yangdok Hot Springs Resort in this undated photo released Jan. 14, 2020 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via Reuters

US$10 will get you a ticket to the resort, which includes access to the baths and drinks for one day, she said, while accommodations range from US$10 to $100 per night, depending on the meals and drinks provided.

“The cost is too high,” the source said, adding that ordinary citizens would never be able to afford entry even if they had the required foreign currency, let alone the cost of lodging.

Exceptions for the politically connected

A second source in South Pyongan confirmed to RFA that the Yangdok Hot Spring Resort had been reopened “in the middle of the month,” adding that “anyone with money [in foreign currency] can go.”

But he said that exceptions are being made for the politically connected.

Officials, war veterans, and citizens who have been recognized at the national level for meritorious conduct are eligible for free 15-day vacation tickets to the resort, which include admission, lodging, food, and alcoholic beverages, the source said.

Additionally, residents of the capital and “innovators” at state-owned companies can purchase 15-day tickets to the resort that include three meals and access to one hot springs bath each day, at the state-set price of US$12.

Guests eat eggs boiled in hot spring water at North Korea’s Yangdok Hot Springs Resort, March 31, 2022. Credit: Kim Won Jin/AFP

All other North Korean citizens must pay market prices to enter and stay at the resort, he said.

“We don’t know the breakdown of free hot spring vacations, government-price hot spring vacations and market-price vacations, but those paying market prices in foreign currency exceed far more than half of the total visitors,” the source said.

“Yangdok Hot Springs Resort was built for the purpose of earning foreign currency. Domestic tourists as well as foreign tourists [when eventually permitted] are required to pay the price in foreign currency. However, to the general public, visiting the resort is a ‘pipe dream.’”

Tourism in North Korea

Reports of the resort’s reopening came a week after an American soldier in South Korea scheduled for disciplinary action crossed into North Korea in the Joint Security Area or JSA, at Panmunjom, where soldiers of both Koreas are stationed, sometimes facing each other.

The soldier, Pvt. Travis King, was on a civilian tour of the JSA and crossed the Military Demarcation Line into North Korea without authorization and is believed to be in custody there.

When asked whether the incident would further delay North Korea’s reopening of the country’s borders to foreign tourists, a tourism and travel agency official noted that not even most North Koreans who were outside of the country before the COVID-19 lockdown have been able to return.

“There are still thousands of them stuck abroad,” said the official, who requested anonymity in consideration of his country’s relationship with North Korea. “Before they have been able to return home, the start of North Korean tourism [to foreigners] is long off.”

Tourists from China pose for photos on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 19, 2019. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP

The official said that while it was “looking positive” for foreign tours to begin again this year, he believes that “early to mid-2024” is now more likely.

He also predicted that the incident at the border would mean “trouble for JSA tours” organized by South Korean companies, noting that King had joined such a group prior to his crossing.

“They are already often canceled for whatever reason, so this is certainly going to be something that might affect them,” he said.

A representative of KTG, which operates tours to North Korea, agreed that the border incident would likely “have a bigger effect on those arranging the tours in South Korea” and suggested that such agencies might “modify the way tours are conducted.”

But he said that the crossing was unlikely to “have had a big effect on [North Korea] tourism” for when the country does eventually reopen its borders.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Matthew Reed.


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